For the past month, we’ve been exploring nine different growing regions across China and nine different families. As we explore, we’ve been working to understand what it is about each region that makes each unique, teasing apart how regional differences influence the values of growers and craftspeople, and why our partners’ particular combination of weather, soil, varietal and craft brings them awards, national recognition and inspiring tea.
Part five of this series explores Wuyangcun, a small tea-growing village a village nestled between the famous white tea mountain regains of Fuding and Xiapu in Fujian. Wuyangcun is the home of our newest partner tea farmers, the Wu Family – multi-generational tea farmers picking and processing wild arbor leaves for especially clean and nuanced white tea.
PART FIVE: the Wu Family
Wuyangcun, Xiapu, Ningde, Fujian
The small town Wuyangcun is tucked in a valley between two mountain peaks, home to only a few dozen people. From the white tea capital of Fuding, it is a four hour drive up winding mountain roads to get all the way to Wuyangcun, far past lowland growing regions like Bailin. While distance from the center of commerce of Fuding makes Wuyangcun less well known than the convenient and close Bailin region or even Taimushan, the elevation and distance are critical in growing the finest teas, as the mountain ranges protect the tea plants from lowland heat and air pollution by forging their own microclimates.
The past few years have recently seen a huge surge in the popularity of white tea in China.
This sudden domestic popularity has been fueled in large part by factory farms owned by the biggest brands pumping money into advertising and product placement. The majority of these farms have been established in the flatlands around Fuding and Bailin because it is so much easier to farm at a large scale on flat land. Close to the city’s amenities and the high speed rail station, the hills are covered with billboard after billboard of advertisements.
The result is that the most remote villages like Wuyangcun have suddenly found their tea in high demand after generations off the radar. Their teas may not be found on billboards, but their work is being sought out by true tea connoisseurs looking to collect the fine and clean white tea, especially for aging. This patronage from clients interested in quality over price has shaped the future of small towns, pushing farming towards lower yield, but finer quality.
Wuyangcun is unique in the area. Because it is such a small town, most of the mountainsides surrounding the village are cared for by one extended family. This allows the whole region to share the same goals in organic clean farming and wild-picking without being compromised by another farmer clear-cutting or spraying chemicals – a problem that more populous and well-known regions have to cope with on a daily basis.
The Wu Family in Wuyangcun uses their tea to craft Bai Hao Yin Zhen, made from buds only, Bai Mudan, a mix of buds and leaves, Shou Mei, primarily large leaf spring tea, Cold Dew Winter White, a winter harvest of leaves with some bud material, and Bai Lu, an autumn harvest of leaves and buds. All these pickings are finished loose and enjoyed fresh as well as pressed into cakes for aging.
True clean Da Bai white tea should have no dry astringency in the back of the throat, and the green notes should be tempered with sweetness – not a lingering bitterness. The texture is usually quite thick and crisp due to the suspended downy leaf in the final brew.
The popularity of white tea shot up exponentially with the realization that white tea can age and grow more nuanced and complex over the years. The Wu family has been aging white tea for generations, primarily for use personally as a traditional Chinese medicine. Only with recent demand have they started to hold back tea for aging at a scale large enough to share.
While Pu’er grows and changes in flavor due to a combination of fermentation and oxidation processes, white tea ages without fermentation. Much like aged oolongs, changes over time occur through oxidation, hydrolysis and the maillard reaction. The result is generally deeper richer “toastier” flavors that come out slowly over many years, and a reduction of the vegetal green notes of fresh white tea.
In tasting white teas from the 1970’s, a cooling camphor note and tingling sensation seems to develop, something completely lacking in most new harvest Da Bai tea. This exciting realization has fueled a lot of speculation on white tea and stockpiling.
Some families in Fuding are riding the wave, tripling their prices in a single year, but the Wu Family has maintained pre-bubble pricing. As Mr. Wu explains, they believe that demand will stabilize; because they are invested over multiple generations, they prefer sustainable business and good relationships.
Mr. Wu actually went to school for engineering. After spending even a day at his workshop, it is clear to see that he loves solving problems and has a real love for precision and craft.
When white tea became wildly popular, Mr Wu left his job as an engineer and came home to help his family. He learned about field management, picking and finishing from his parents and grandparents, and established a new workshop closer to the city to store and pressed white teas for aging near his wife’s family home outside of Bailin.
Mr. Wu met his wife in Fuding, the daughter of another tea growing family, and they have one son, still an infant, to whom they one day hope to teach the craft of tea.
Like many of our partners Mr. Wu and his wife are part of the youngest generation in their families, learning from their parents and grandparents while bringing a new spirit of innovation and creative optimism to their family’s tea farms and workshops.
In the last few years, some members of the Wu family have considered cutting back their wild bushy tea plants to start again with neat easy to pick rows of young plants.
Mr. Wu has persuaded the whole family to preserve their wild groves. These groves were untended for so long that they have returned to a more naturally balanced ecosystem, with bamboo forest, wildflowers, birds and other plants growing between tall white tea bushes.
The choice to let so much of the mountainsides above Wuyangcun grow wild and untended at a time when higher prices reward high yields is unexpected, but the family feels confident that it is the right choice in the long run. Over time, their wild white teas can bring everyone a better living, and Mr. Wu and his young family is leading the charge, taking on the role of engineer, community leader, and salesman.
Mr. Wu thinks that sun-drying and hot air are too much heat exposure, liable to degrade the natural taste of his family’s wild tea. Spring time sun can also be unreliable, for no one can control the weather.
In response to this problem, Mr. Wu actually personally fabricated his own system of fans to control air flow and humidity during drying. He built a room that can be temperature controlled based on changing the amount of sunlight allowed in. At the same time, his fans create an airflow pattern that covers both sides of every bud and leaf, spread on special mesh.
With this method, the white tea process is much cooler and darker than traditional sun druing. This process is slower, but through controlling the rate of evaporation, Mr. Wu can prevent oxidation while avoiding heat reaction flavors.
The result is extremely clean, pure, and nuanced. He readily laughs and admits that his process takes three times as long as anyone else’s, but the result is worth it.
Now, not only do Mr. Wu and his wife finish almost all of the tea in picked by the Wu Family in Wuyangcun, but they also finish tea for other farmers that share their aesthetic.
In the last year, Mr. Wu has begun to teach other colleagues and neighbors how to build drying rigs like his in an effort to improve the tea of the whole region.
For the Wu Family, the white tea boom is an exciting chance to refine their craft.
Past generations had to make do with little demand, but now the Wu Family can pre-sell their entire year’s pickings, giving everyone the time to evaluate, hone, and improve.
While most growers would point out the best in their tea, drinking tea with Mr. Wu is always about reflecting on opportunity to do better and continue to advance to craft of the whole region.